The Digital Self
The other day I wasn’t sure I existed. So I googled myself to be sure I did.
There was my face, my book, my speeches, my interviews, even “my quotes” – selected excerpts from my book on Goodreads.
I existed, alright!
For the first time in my life (and in human history), the search engines and data banks of the whole world – the digital libraries in which all knowledge and all things are registered – were corroborating my existence.
But this is a new type of existence. Our being-in-the-world is not experienced from within, but from without. This new being – let us call it our digital self – is sustained by the eyes that view it on the internet. The corroboration of the others’ gaze is not simply one of the many aspects of living in society – as was the case for millennia. Today, it is what makes our world real! Everything we do becomes real by being posted in the public space; it becomes real by becoming digital. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) has become ego vidisset ergo sum (I am seen therefore I am). And Berkeley’s esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived) has now become esse est in internet est (to be is to exist on the internet)! These new realities are neither metaphors nor exaggerations. We are talking about a new mode of being – or rather, of coming-to-be! It’s like a new birth. Each one of us is being reborn as a new being online.
But let us start from the beginning.
I have my social circles, my family, friends, many acquaintances, and the people I see every now and then, such as my local barber, the newsstand lady in the nearby village, the butcher, the dentist, and more. They know me by interacting with my body in physical space. There is intimacy, exchange of feeling, psychological nearness, physical contact. Until recently, these were the only real human interactions I knew existed. But now, this small circle of people who used to be the total number of people who knew me has quantitatively shrunk to almost zero. Now there is another huge set, a gargantuan circle that has completely dwarfed this group: the thousands of people who come to know my digital self on the internet. I seem to exist simultaneously in two parallel worlds – the old physical world where my physical body resides, and the digital world in which my new digital self has been born.
These two selves are now not only inseparable for others, but they are also slowly becoming inseparable for me! They mingle and occasionally merge in weird new ways, thereby creating a kind of a new composite self that partakes of both worlds. I observe that I have begun taking care of the digital self as I take care of my physical self, switching from one to the other as if they are two sides of the same coin. This caring-for has a digital term borrowed from the arts: curating. Most of us spend significant time curating our digital self. I have to choose one avatar for my YouTube self, a particular photo and description for my website self, another one for my Amazon self, and so on. I request hearts and likes and comments from friends or from this new group of digital friends called “followers.” And having limited time to run after all these things, I occasionally recruit others to do the curating on my behalf. For just as you go to the barber to cut your hair, or the manicurist to groom your nails, there are now companies and freelancers who offer to help improve the image and status of your digital self: they boost your YouTube channel, give you likes and views, find you new followers, and a million other goodies of the digital world. Forget your diplomas and earned titles – these are the weights and measures of a bygone era! The era of Digital Flooding has already washed them away. The likes and upvotes, smileys and hearts, the number of followers and number of views –these are the new measures of one’s standing in the digital universe, and by extension in the contemporary world at large. Of course, just as you can never know the complete character of a man from his perfectly coifed beard, or the personality of a woman from her manicure, you can never know someone by these superficial digital metrics.
But how is this digital self actually constructed? What are the building blocks we use, and what are the guiding forces behind our curating?
There is a constant dialogue between four elements that come together: who we believe we are now, who we want to be in the future, how we think others see us now, and how we want them to view us. Out of this quaternity, these four “visions of ourself,” we create our digital self. So this self may be said to capture some of the truth of who we are and what we want to achieve. But unfortunately the others’ gaze is so demanding, the judgement, opinions, and values of the multitude so pressing and influencing, that the last of the four elements – how we want others to view us – ends up overwhelming the other three. The social, the public, the shareable elements of ourself are much more important in the Digital Age because it is in the nature of the internet to filter everything so as to make it socially acceptable, publicly available, and easily shareable to a wider audience. Just as politicians direct the majority of their activities and discourse to the lowest common denominator of the multitude, the others’ gaze on the internet makes us direct our digital curation to the masses. Therefore, our digital self, created in this way, ends up being as superficial and empty as the sweet-lipped political candidate who will say anything to attract voters.
But the digital self cannot wholly be understood and explored by these analogies. For when it is examined carefully, it is neither singular nor can it be delineated with exactitude. As I wrote in an older essay, “We have ceased to be a singular self. We create through the others’ gaze multiple identities (in equivalent digital platforms) by being the social Facebook guy, the serious LinkedIn professional, the playful YouTuber – all at once.” This in itself need not be problematic. We can all already grasp and (consciously or unconsciously) accept the idea that we are not a singular self. And that we have different personas or identities that we use according to where we are, what we do, and with whom we interact: we behave differently with our close friends than we do with the prime minister. Having one or more personas residing in digital space seems to be no different from simply adding a few more personas to the already rather large set we carry around in our offline life. The birth and curation of our digital self could therefore easily be dismissed as nothing truly serious. It could just be the new colorful and even playful “fashion” of the Digital Age. Or the natural outcome of the recent explosion in the ownership of mobile devices, which will simply pass as all fashions pass. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Not simply because – as we saw earlier – the digital self dwarfs the physical one, but mainly because with its many personas it does not remain contained in the digital universe:The digital self overflows and spreads out into the real world where it messes with our life as a whole!
Take the now ubiquitous scene of four young people sitting around a table at a café. They are absolutely silent, each holding their mobile phones, staring and tapping at the screen. They are all “in” the internet – in this other dimension of being where physical space, physical proximity, the real world with the sun’s rays, city sounds, surrounding people all vanish completely. It does not matter where these four people are: they might as well be sitting at home or be situated on different continents! They are each “chatting” through their mobile screens with other friends who are not in the café. They send messages via Twitter, upload posts on Facebook and Instagram. Paradoxically, although they are with their friends in the café, they are not interacting with them but with other people, such as their followers, their Facebook community, or their absent friends – who are actually not “absent,” because digital space transcends physical space. Being with the “absent-present” friends in itself is not bad. It is being with the absent ones rather than with the ones sitting next to them that is the problem! For it diminishes, if not cancels, the whole experience of going out with friends. One may retort that there is nothing wrong with this, and that it is simply a new way of interacting with other people. But even if this is a new type of behavior, it is not a way of interacting but rather of not interacting! We cannot simply redefine what socializing is in order to include in it its opposite, i.e., non-socializing. Such unsociable behavior is a clear example of the digital self overflowing into the real world and messing it up.
But this is not all. The four friends do something that is even more unbelievable: while they are immersed in the digital dimension by texting to the absent friends, browsing their newsfeeds, or uploading posts, at some point they begin sending messages to one another in the café, thereby communicating among themselves via the internet! Suddenly, without leaving this other digital dimension, they silently “converse” with one another via short sentences and sound bites that have replaced proper conversation, eye-contact, and, most importantly, focused interaction. Their attention is scattered about as they jump from one digital platform to another while exchanging messages and surfing the web. The word “surfing” is actually the most appropriate to describe the totality of the continual unsteady movements of such dispersed minds: it is surfing on the surface of waves – it is foam and froth and vapour! Furthermore, the friends also hug and kiss and do a hundred other things by typing on their devices, without even glancing at one another nor moving an inch from their seats. They are all “acting out” simulations of real-life actions via the web. The real world has suddenly acquired a mirror image in the digital world, in which all human activities have become digitalized by acquiring a symbol that represents them. An entire range of emojis communicate actions that people would like to do (but don’t!), such as hugging, kissing, laughing, screaming. Other icons express human emotions (that people do not express!), such as love, boredom, sadness and anger. No longer is there a need to perform any of these acts. The exchange of a mere symbol has replaced the actions themselves, turning them into newly created digital acts that somehow pertain to both worlds: A digital hug induces in one’s imagination the real hug, and then one imagines the hugging, thereby supposedly “acting it out digitally” – whatever that means! The four friends are talking with one another, or hugging, or even expressing happiness, sadness, anger, and more via their mobiles, without even raising their heads to see one another. In this digital dimension, not only are we all without bodies, but our actions seem to have been separated from our bodies. We are becoming immobile typists who need no lips to speak or kiss, no arms to hug, no legs to visit places.
This incredible new reality brings to mind an episode from the sci-fi TV series Star Trek in which the exploration starship Enterprise falls upon a planet whose inhabitants are so much ahead of us in evolution that they have discarded all of their body parts. What remains of them are their naked brains in large glass fish bowls connected to machines. These brains only have to think of something to make it happen. Watching the young generation at the café, I actually get the feeling that this is where our future civilization is heading. Today’s typing fingers are already being replaced by voice recognition systems – there go the hands; in 200 years from now, we will connect our brains to programs that will read our thoughts so we won’t even need to speak – there go the mouth and ears. We are all moving towards our glorious future as disembodied brains!
The digital self, with its many curated personas, its new language and vocabulary, its simulations of human activities in digital space that are slowly replacing real actions, is now steadily and stealthily overwhelming our physical self and taking control of our lives. Our only defense is to observe, study, and understand it, so that we can try to contain it and force it to remain where it is supposed to live.